Friday, November 7, 2008

The Long Glide Home - BHARATPUR

The Long Glide Home

Bharatpur had no water, no fish — no birds. Yet, ingenuity and effort revived the wetland, writes PRERNA SINGH BINDRA

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 45, Dated Nov 15, 2008

JULY 2008: Hope had almost died, much like the sanctuary at Bharatpur, starved of water and life for nearly five years. As the monsoon approached, many a hopeful eye looked to the sky. This time, the gods did not disappoint and rain drenched a parched earth.

The first to test the waters were Openbills, arriving in tentative numbers. Soon, the Kadam trees were colonised by thousands of these storks. Their arrival signalled others to follow, and Keoladeo Ghana National Park, better known as Bharatpur, was back in business. Darters, egrets, herons, ibis’, and cormorants set up house. Jacanas were busy making nests atop thick floating vegetation, and the Sarus Crane did what it does best — dancing and wooing its mate.

The migrants — ducks, teals, pochards, gadwalls, geese, pintails — have started making cautious forays. And it is expected that they will land in huge numbers at their winter sanctuary, denied to them over the years.

The first sign of unhappy days ahead came in the early winter of 2002, when Keoladeo’s star visitor, the Siberian Crane, having dwindled to a measly three over the years, failed to show up. Though you couldn’t lay the blame on Bharatpur’s door — the cranes travel through hostile skies — many superstitious ornithologists took it as a grim sign. True enough, drought plagued the region from 2004 onwards. Bharatpur shrivelled up. Worse, the waters of the Ajan dam, fed by the Gambhir and Banganga rivers — the wetland’s lifeline — was denied to the sanctuary, thanks to agitating farmers and water politics. Over the past four years, rainfall had been low, and farmers demanded water for their fields. Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje stated in 2005 that “people, not parks, were her priority”. Not understanding that denying the wetlands would mean groundwater for nearby farmers wouldn’t be replenished, the powers-that-be succumbed to political pressure and diverted water meant for the swamps to farmlands. The result? Devastation.

The wetland, accorded the status of a Ramsar Site, became arid. Birds gave the dry, desolate park a miss. The Siberian Cranes were already history; the flourishing stork colonies and heronries now ceased to exist. From the 400-odd species the park boasted, the numbers crashed to 48 last year, and the park that saw hundred of thousands of birds in a normal season now barely held 4,000. Other species suffered, too. The endangered Fishing Cat dwindled to negligible numbers, otters once seen frolicking here vanished, and turtles were seen desperately thrashing in tiny, putrid pools of water. The once fecund Bharatpur had become a graveyard. “There was no breeding at all, how could there be in such conditions? No water, no grasses, no fish. Lacking prey, the raptors took wing too,” says Bholu Abrar Khan, a park veteran. The economy centred on the park was devastated. Says Rattan Singh, a rickshawpuller who takes tourists around the park, “There were very few tourists, those who came, returned unhappy”. Hotels ran empty.

The initial reaction was kneejerk. Spluttering tubewells were installed but feral cattle, which had taken over the park, lapped up the water they pumped. The state government’s more lavish but equally doomed plan — to draw water through a pipeline from the Chambal river, at a cost of over Rs 100 crore — was rubbished by experts. “Bharatpur needs live water that gives birth to the grasses, fish, etc that birds feed on. Water that comes all the way from Chambal will be inert, and of little use,” explains Dr Parikshit Gautam, Director, Wetlands Programme, World Wide Fund for Nature, India.

The problem of Prosopis juliflora, an exotic species that grows rapidly and hampers the growth of other species, was equally grave. In just three years, from 2002 to 2005, its spread almost doubled, obstructing the regeneration of native vegetation, and trees like Salvadora persica and Balanites aegyptiaca — on which fruit-eating birds like Rosy Pastors depend.

“So bad was the situation that there were fears the wetland would lose its World Heritage Status. Which it almost did”, says Bikram Grewal, author of The Bharatpur Inheritance. “We couldn't allow that to happen,” says R N Mehrotra, Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan. So began the battle to regain the park. The first step was to get rid of the prosopis: a monumental task with no precedent. The forest department strategised an innovative plan that benefited local villagers, and the WWF pitched in financially. Through eco-development committees formed in villages near the park, families were allotted plots of land from which they would clear the weed. In exchange, they were given wood. About eight kilometres of the park were cleared, and nearly 1 lakh quintals of wood extracted from it. Many locals used this bounty to repay old debts. Tukiram from Jatoli village not only cleared his debts, he also built a house.

The water problem was even more complex. Fortunately, this year, the rain gods obliged. But this is not enough. To survive, Bharatpur needs about 550 mcf of water, most of it supplied by the Ajan bund. Though a prickly issue, discreet politics, plus coordination with the district administration, saw about 450 mcf being released in three phases from Ajan.

Ajan, however, can no longer be depended on, given the volatile politics attached to it. One solution was to divert the Chiksana canal, which drained Ajan’s flood water, and passed through the park’s southern tip. This was diverted to the E block — the point once visited by the Sibes. It filled the gap, supplying about 80 mcf. “Also on the anvil is a project to get water from the Govardhan canal, a flood drain with no claimants to its water. This will mean drawing a pipe of about 17 kms to the park. Together, these canals can meet Bharatpur’s needs in times of stress”, explains Dr Gautam. .

“The state has already sanctioned Rs 12.46 crore for this. The cost is about 65 crore, and the Planning Commission has agreed to grant the rest. We have already started work on it and hope the canal will be ready by the next monsoon. Bharatpur need never go thirsty again,” says Mehrotra.

Bharatpur is still a far cry from its former glory, but well on its way to recovery. With the prosopis scourge removed, and the gift of water, Bharatpur is alive with the cries of a thousand birds. Bholu points out the nest of a Painted Stork: the mother has just brought back fish and the four chicks are raising hell, stabbing at her beak for the food. “Four chicks, and they have all survived — it means there’s enough food in the park...” And enough hope for the future!

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